Immigrant Women Breaking the Silence through English-learning at The Women’s Building

“I have developed the courage to be able to speak to the teachers who didn’t understand me. Now I talk to them in English and ask them what I want to know and I feel good because it’s not like it was before where I would tell my daughter, ‘Tell them this…’ and I felt weak. But not anymore. Now I know I can speak to the teacher.”                   — Viridiana Millan, ESL student

Viridiana Millan came to the United States as a teenager 12 years ago from Mexico and was enrolled in high school at a higher grade level than she felt comfortable. She struggled in understanding the teachers and the books assigned. She became discouraged and dropped out of school.

Recently motivated by her sister who enrolled in the free ESL course offered by The Women’s Building last Fall and by the fact that the building also offers free childcare, Viridiana decided to enroll in the course. She has continued in the course this Spring and because of her advanced ability, the teacher has asked her to work as an assistant, helping other students in the multi-level class.

“For me [the course] has helped because before I could not go to my child’s school and talk with her teachers because the majority of them only spoke English. But now this is the second class I take at The Women’s Building–the first class we learned how to speak to teachers at school–and this helped me a lot. I have developed the courage to be able to speak to the teachers who didn’t understand me.”

Bertha Villalobos, a beginning ESL student from Mexico, also had no English training prior to coming to The Women’s Building but after a few weeks in the course, she takes pride in now being able to understand the language. “I have learned how to hear English and know what is being said. My problem is I still cannot write it or speak it too well. I cannot speak it but at least I can understand it. For me that is a big advantage because I did not know it at all.

The course, 10 weeks long and taught in the office space of Mujeres Unidas y Activas in The Women’s Building, is diverse in learning-levels and encourages student participation and input in shaping the class. Students have been able to develop supportive relationships and have their say in the course, as Bertha tells it:

“I like the comradery of the more advanced students in the class because if one of us beginners does not know then they help us. They do not laugh at us who do not know. They respect us. Also when we started the class, the teacher gave us a contract and we came up with rules between all of us and everyone respects them. All of us gave our opinions.”

Taught by San Francisco State University TESOL Graduate, Jeff McClelland, the course uses a participatory approach to ESL instruction where students determine their own curriculum to reflect their needs. “It is about building on what students already know instead of having a class where the teacher stands at the front and lectures at students the entire time” says McClelland. “Unfortunately, instruction that is not based on student input is too often used as a tool to put them in a subordinate position.”

SFSU Assistant Professor in English, Maricel Santos, views ESL classrooms as playing an important role in helping develop leadership and power within immigrant communities. She states:

“Whether you are a beginning ESL learner or an advanced learner, learning English represents an opportunity to discover new ways of being in the world. When you learn how to ask questions of your child’s teacher, you are saying to the world, “I want my child’s school to respect my view as a parent. I want to be viewed as an important decision-maker in my child’s schooling.” ESL classrooms have the potential to affirm immigrant learners’ right to speak their mind, even if they are only beginning to learn the language.”

Viridiana and Bertha are both well on their way to learning English with the hopes of being able to understand and speak the language better. For Viridiana, she would one day like to use the skills she is learning to become a teacher.

Together as a group, Viridiana and Bertha along with the other ESL students, are learning from one another how to speak up and advocate for themselves and their children. In the process, as Bertha states, they are learning more about themselves and where they are going. “We are learning the stories of one another, of ourselves. We write them and we study them. Stories of what country we are from, what we do, what we like, and who we want to be.”


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